Gordon at the Kremlin Wall – Philip E Rakita – USSR 1976

I was in Moscow in the spring of 1976 on my Fulbright exchange for 4-month teaching chemistry at Moscow State University. With me were my first wife, Frances, and our two sons, Michael (9) and Gordon (6).

It was a cold spring day, and we were headed out on a family sightseeing trip. We were on a city bus passing behind the Alexander Gardens when Gordon suddenly announced that he had to pee. I chastised him for not having coordinated his bladder with the other family members and reluctantly we all got off the bus at the next stop to look for a place of public accommodation. There was none to be found. But there was some shrubbery near the Kremlin Wall and while Fran stayed on lookout with Michael, I took Gordon into the bushes to water a tree.

The hallowed ground of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was nearby, and my mind was filled with images of what might happen to us if we were caught desecrating this sacred space. With visions of my next stop being the Siberian gulags, I anxiously searched from side to side and urged Gordon to “hurry up.”

Just then I noticed a Russian man, about my age, standing about 30 meters away. He had with him a small boy about Gordon’s age who was doing the same thing with a different bush. Our eyes met. And there was that brief moment of mutual understanding. We were just two fathers, dealing with small, immediate family problems. There was no cold war. There was no mutual antipathy. We were just trying to get through life. We wanted the same things–to live a healthy life into old age, to see our children grow and prosper, to watch our favorite sports team win the championship. Little stuff.

Gordon finished his job. So did the other little boy and each of us went our separate ways. But I will never forget that moment and how it crystallized for me what “mutual understanding between peoples of the world” is all about.

Philip E Rakita – Fulbright to USSR 1976

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